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While reading Karen Russell’s stellar hit, Swamplandia!, I did a double take.
I know the book is intended to be a novel and it certainly reads like one. It has a story: a beginning, a middle, an end; a protagonist, a climax, etc. Despite these facts, Swamplandia! reads, to me, like one big, epic poem.
Nowadays we rarely see long poems in the poetry world. What happened to those epics, like the Iliad, which frame western literary history as we know it? I think perhaps they’ve dissolved into a certain kind of novel —one that reads like poetry and presents as a novel. One of the reasons for this “re-formatting” may be the publishing industry’s preference for novels over shorter forms of writing, and all of poetry, in general. Writers know it’s certainly more lucrative to write 300 pages then to write 100, and to produce full-length novels rather than novellas. This preference is uniquely contemporary, and for that reason, I seem to stumble upon true poetry in the novels of certain modern and contemporary writers.
I first met Dean not long after Tryscha and I hooked up. I had just gotten over a wicked fucking hangover that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with a six-foot-five douchebag and a beer bong. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the bro’d. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see hot LA actress chicks and try In N’ Out burgers, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect bro for the road because he knows how to fucking party. First reports of him came to me through Chad King, who’d shown me a few Facebook status updates written by Dean from the Arizona State Beta Phi Omega house. I was totally stoked about Dean’s status updates because they were funny as shit, asking Chad to rate some pictures of girls he hooked up with the night before. At one point, Carlo Marx and I texted about the status updates and wondered if we would ever meet the epic Dean Moriarty. This is all far back, when Dean was not the crazy fucking jagoff he is today, when he was a young Communications major shrouded in Axe Body Spray. Then news came that Dean was out of ASU and was transferring to OSU; also there was talk that he was bringing some slam piece named Marylou.
2 – Flipcup and Phoenix
One night I was playing flipcup at the Delta house and Chad and Tim Gray told me Dean just got in and was staying at the Holiday Inn Express near East Campus. Dean had arrived the night before, the first time in Columbus, with his hotass stacked trixie Marylou; they got out of his Land Rover and cut around the corner looking for some grub and went right into Buffalo Wild Wings, and since then B-Dubs has always been a bitchin symbol of Columbus for Dean. They threw down cash on fucking tasty wings and brew-dogs.
All this time Dean was telling Marylou shit like this: “Now, babe, we’re at OSU, and even though I haven’t laid down the plan for you, we gotta forget about whatever stupid shit happened between us in Phoenix and fuckin’ cowboy up and start thinking about how we’re gonna pregame tonight…” and so on in the way that he had in those early days.
3 – A Natty Light-Slugging Hero of the Southwest
I went to the Holiday Inn Express with my buddies, and Dean came to the door in his lacrosse shorts. Marylou was jumping off the couch; Dean was totally getting his bone on, for to him sex was the one and only clutch thing in life, although he had to work part time at Foot Locker to cover tuition and so on. You saw that in the way he stood bobbing his head, always looking at his Samsung Galaxy, nodding like a young boxer to instructions, to make you think he was listening to every work, throwing in a thousand “Hell yeas” and “right ons.” I went to the Holiday Inn Express with my buddies, and Dean came to the door in his lacrosse shorts. Marylou was jumping off the couch; Dean was totally getting his bone on, for to him sex was the one and only clutch thing in life, although he had to go to the gym and do laundry and so on. My first impression of Dean was of a young The Situation—ripped, funny as shit, with spiked hair—a Natty Light-slugging hero of the Southwest. In fact he’d just been in the hospital for alcohol poisoning before hooking up with Marylou and coming to OSU. Marylou was a nine-out-of-ten with a Mystic Tan and a crazy rack; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her iPhone in her hands and her oversized Dolce and Gabana sunglasses on, waiting like a less-hot Megan Fox in that first Transformers movie. But, outside of being pretty hot, she was a total bitch and capable of being a defcon-one psycho hose-beast. That night we all slammed Bud Light Limes and pulled stop signs out of the curb till dawn, and in the morning, while we sat around hung over as shit and watching Sportscenter, Dean got up like a total pimp, paced around, and decided the thing to do was have Marylou get some grub. “In other words we need some breakfast burritos, babe.” She had some kind of bitch-out about it and I peaced out.
It all began with a psych evaluation, one that would figure out what was wrong with me and what was right. Turns out, my IQ is bordering genius level with regards to the right brain and borderline normal with regards to the left brain. About half of that of my right brain. Among other things, I was diagnosed with a learning disorder that has no name. Essentially, the doctor explained, I cannot sequence properly.
He learned this by placing six cards with various scenarios drawn on them. Man frying eggs, man in bed, man putting coat on, man walking out door, etc. When asked to put the cards in order, I did and explained how it worked. The doctor looked baffled. Eyes bulging in a way that expressed intense disbelief, he barked, “How the hell did you make it through life? I mean you’ve just been accepted to VASSAR! How the hell did you do that?” Throwing his hands upwards, as if to alert the Man Upstairs what a freak I was, he half chuckled and choked on his own dramatic facial expression before quickly refocusing on the very specialized testing process (one that oddly resembled a culmination of pre-school’s greatest hits: playing with blocks, tossing colored rings, drawing pictures of my mommy and daddy, etc.)
I thought the ordering of the cards made sense. Sometimes I have eggs before bed. Was that a crime? My learning disorder was so “severe” that I should have been handicapped at a young age. I’m guessing my freakishly smart right brain helped the left side along with training wheels and though my essays were sometimes a mess logically speaking, I made A’s and found myself enrolled in gifted programs and classes.
The first time I heard about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I was spending some time with a ridiculously smart friend of mine. He was teaching undergraduates at the age of 17. Having skipped middle school completely, he enrolled in college at the tender age of 14. We sat in a white room scattered with mid-century furniture and he threw the 1,000+-page behemoth at the wall, leaving a proper dent. “I give up!” he said. “I’ve stopped and started this thing six times and I just don’t understand it.” And that was that.
Recently, while perusing the always wonderful tabled selections at The Strand, I lifted the hefty volume in my arms, opened it, and while I semi-discreetly sniffed the pages, I decided that I too, must try to read Infinite Jest. Hailed as an absolute masterpiece due to its impeccably tight writing (not ONE wasted word), length and composition (the rules of narrative definitely do not apply) by a former Claremont College professor and nationally ranked tennis player who hanged himself in 2008, the book needed to be read. I’m the kid who plowed through the works of William Shakespeare at age 11 and had to read Gone With the Wind because it was roughly 1,000 pages. So, natch, it had to be done. Reading Infinite Jest has become my February and (also maybe early March) proposition.
The Guardian’s William Skidelsky claims that fiction based on real-life events are “meagre offerings that cannot escape the confines of their reality-bound aspirations.” The two purposes of storytelling, those which have endured since the art was born, are 1) to entertain and 2) to reveal some truth about the human condition. But I fail to see how fact-based fiction doesn’t satisfy both those points.
Obviously, not all fact-based fiction is the same, and I’d tend to agree that a film or book or what-have-you that essentially recreates a real-life experience scene-for-scene, taking very few creative liberties in the process, could hardly be considered art. But a work of fiction that takes a real event and seeks to tease out motifs, metaphors, and hidden meanings? That works to elevate fact? Sounds like proper storytelling to me.
I’m relatively young and relatively hip, and while I know writing those two things down automatically makes one older and more unhip than they were two seconds ago, I categorize myself this way because what I’m about to say might make you assume I’m 70 years old with a permanent sour face and a “Stay Off The GRASS” sign on my sad, unmowed lawn:
I hate the idea of a Kindle.
I will never buy one, and I can’t fathom why anyone else would, either. At least anyone who works 9-12 hours a day on the computer.
Don’t you people want some time away from that damn screen?! (<–as my mom would say)
Books, while sometimes weirdly expensive, are a luxury. Their pages are perfectly aligned. They have a book smell. Thick ones tell the world that you’re intelligent and focused (or at least good at pretending to be) and thinner ones say that you’re a literary bandit. A Rumi or Kahlil Gibran volume on your nightstand assures your relationships that you are, indeed, a deep and romantic thinker. Conversations are started over books being read in coffee shops and on the subway. Books can be lent or borrowed. Books take up space. They’re real. Something to hold onto when you’re lonely or sitting on a park bench. Books are a nerdy kid’s best friend.
Plus, when you lose a book, you can just go out and buy a new one without wondering if your bank account is going to hate you.
No one was ever asked out for coffee based on what was on their Kindle. You can’t see what that hot, mysterious-looking guy is reading on the subway if he has a tiny electric screen shoved in his face. The selling point of a Kindle is that its lightweight; there’s no feeling proud after you finish page 822 of Moby Dick on a Kindle because there’s no last page to turn. Read more »
It has been a tough year, 2010. It has been a year where we saw the economy continue to crumble, the environment destroyed by an oil spill, and Christine O’Donnell. And after all of that, most of the country is paralyzed by an unexpected blizzard just as we try to ring in a new year.
There is a bright spot out there, and it’s taking the form of humor writing. What better way to usher in 2011 than with books that can actually make us laugh?